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173: Why we shouldn’t read the “Your X-Year-Old Child” books any more
4th December 2022 • Your Parenting Mojo - Respectful, research-based parenting ideas to help kids thrive • Jen Lumanlan
00:00:00 01:09:53

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Have you ever seen recommendations for the books called Your One Year Old, Your Two Year Old, and so on, by Louise Bates Ames?  Every few weeks I see parents posting in online communities asking about some aspect of their child’s behavior that is confusing or annoying to them, and somebody responds: “You should read the Louise Bates Ames books!”
This usually comes with the caveat that the reader will have to disregard all the 'outdated gender stuff,' but that the information on child development is still highly relevant.
In this episode I dig deep into the research on which these books are based. While the books were mostly published in the 1980s, they're based on research done in the 1930s to 1950s.
I argue that far from just 'stripping out the outdated gender stuff,' we need to look much deeper at the cultural context that the information in these books fits within - because it turns out that not only were the researchers not measuring 'normal,' 'average' child development, but that they were training children to respond to situations in a certain way, based on ideas about a person's role in society that may not fit with our views at all. And if this is the case, why should we use these books as a guide to our children's development?
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Jump to highlights
(02:41) An open invitation to check out the new book that will be released in August 2023. (04:59) Why these child psych books from the 1980s are all over parenting Facebook groups today (06:01) The Gesell philosophy of human behavior (08:48) Who is Louise Bates (10:32) Who is Arnold Gesell (11:28) How the children were selected to participate in the experiment (14:28) How our view of childhood had undergone a massive shift in the previous 100 years (16:09) What’s it like to have a child involved in the study (19:35) Some of the significant milestones provided by researchers (20:50) Dr. Gesell is looking to study the natural development of children’s physical capabilities (22:07) What normal seems to mean in the study (23:11) Gesell fails to observe what the baby’s hands are actually doing (24:18) The purpose of the ‘performance box’ (27:44) I add my own judgment of the research (28:32) Gesell wrote that what he called ‘systematic cinematography’ (29:22) Another way that the situation was anything but natural was that the study took place within a dome (30:59) Dr. Gesell observed the effect of the running commentary on him in the experimenter role (31:54) Dr. Gesell makes contradictory statements about whether the behavior he observed in the lab was the same as the behavior the child displayed at home (32:58) A baby’s behavior changes based on the environment it is in (35:04) What the researchers say about children’s capabilities outside of the lab (35:56) Even the view of maturation itself is inextricably linked to Euro-centric ideas about time, on both micro and macro scales. (40:51) What are parents supposed to do with all this information (45:19) One of the Dr. Bates Ames’ key ideas is that development doesn’t proceed in a linear fashion (47:52) The similarity between reading the development book and reading a horoscope (52:33) The idea that things aren’t linear in our children’s development is super helpful (52:54) I found the most useful description of why this non-linear behavior happens in a book of essays by Dr. Myrtle McGraw (54:14) Going back to the outdated ideas about gender (57:11) The flow of authority (01:00:55) When we use our power to get children to do what we want them to do we’re still promoting the values of a patriarchal culture (01:02:58) The most common word uttered is ‘mine’ (01:05:04) Each of the decisions parents make is made in a cultural context (01:07:36) An episode suggestion to listen to
  [accordion] [accordion-item title="Click here to read the full transcript"] Emma 00:03 Hi, I'm Emma, and I'm listening from the UK. We all want our children to lead fulfilled lives, but we're surrounded by conflicting information and clickbait headlines that leave us wondering what to do as parents. The Your Parenting Mojo podcast distills scientific research on parenting and child development into tools parents can actually use every day in their real lives with their real children. If you'd like to be notified when new episodes are released, and get a free infographic on the 13 reasons your child isn't listening to you and what to do about each one, just head on over to And pretty soon, you're going to get tired of hearing my voice read this intro. So come and record one yourself at Jen Lumanlan 00:51 Hello and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. Have you ever seen recommendations for the books called Your One Year Old, Your Two Year Old, and so on, by Dr. Louise Bates Ames? Every few weeks I see parents posting in online communities asking about some aspect of their child’s behavior that is confusing or annoying to them, and somebody responds: “You should read the Louise Bates Ames books!” They are really short; just about 150 pages each, and were written in the 1970s and ‘80s, and seem to describe a ‘normal’ child’s behavior at each age. The idea of the books, as Dr. Bates Ames and her co-authors state, is that the parent will be able to see their child’s behavior described in the book and be able to relax because the child really is ‘normal.’ Jen Lumanlan 01:36 I first heard about these books when Carys was about two, and I have to say I found them somewhat helpful and reassuring at the time, even though I would read them and think: “no, Carys doesn’t do that…or that…but she does do that – OK; I guess everything is fine.” Jen Lumanlan 01:50 Whenever someone suggests reading these books, they always come with a caveat that you have to disregard the outdated information on topics like gender roles, and that didn’t quite sit right with me but for a while I couldn’t put my finger on why. Then more recently parent educator Robin Einzig posted in her group with a link to a Slate article that recommends these books, and suddenly I realized what I was struggling with. I do want to say that this is not a take-down of Robin Einzig; I GREATLY respect her work, because she’s one of the few people out there who works with parents who truly sees and treats children with respect. I almost wrote this episode without mentioning her but it would have been really hard to explain how my own understanding shifted without talking about her post, and even if I’d anonymized it I know we have enough folks who follow both of our work that it would most likely have gotten back to her. Overall it seemed more honest to just acknowledge the whole story, so that’s what I’m doing. Jen Lumanlan 02:41 In a minute I’ll tell you about the whole process but before I do that, I just want to say that the reason these ideas are now much clearer for me than they were even a year ago is because I’ve spent the last year writing a book at the intersection of parenting and social justice. Many of the books on this topic that have been written recently take the perspective that to create a society where everyone belongs, we should talk with our children about the kinds of systems that make that not the case today like White supremacy and racism, patriarchy, and capitalism. I agree that yes, we absolutely MUST do those things…and that also if those are the only things we’re doing, we’re missing something really important. Our ideas aren’t just transmitted to our children through the conversations we have with them but also through the ways we interact with them about things like mealtime and bedtime and what we do when we’re feeling frustrated. If we’re using our power over our children to manage those situations then we’re still perpetuating the very same ideas that we’re telling our children are bad. The book will be released in August 2023, and I’m starting to think about ways to get the word out about it. I’ve created a new page on my website at, so you can go there to find out more information. There’s only a bit about the book there now, but there is also a form where you can let me know that you’d like to be notified when the book is released, and if you’d like to know if I come and do a reading in a town near you, and maybe even offer to help bring me to your town to do a reading or a workshop related to the ideas in the book. So, you can do that at, and we’ll also update that page when we have more information available about where I’ll be and when after the book is released. Jen Lumanlan 04:20 So, the event that caused me to think about these books again was when Robin posted in her group: “I just came across this wonderful article about the persistent value of the [occasionally outdated, "old" in the world of publishing] series by Louise Bates Ames and the Gesell Institute of Child Development entitled "Your One Year Old", "Your Two Year Old" and so on. I recommend these books left and right, almost every day, both online and in personal consultations. Get them. Read them. Read excerpts of them online. Disregard the outdated stuff--you can do this, you can overlook stuff that doesn't apply anymore and focus on the information about child development, which is top-notch. There is really nothing else like them out there, and there is so much in them that is of great value.” Jen Lumanlan 04:59 She then posted a link to an article in Slate from 2021 called “Why these child psych books from the 1980s are all over parenting Facebook groups today,” which mentions some of the stuff we’re going to go into in more detail in this episode – the idea that a 4 ½ year-old can be trusted to play outdoors without much supervision, which implies that the family lives in a safe neighborhood, and probably has a fenced yard as well that the parent can look into. We’ll look at the weird gender stuff more closely as well, where girls are shy, boys are exuberant, and the stay-at-home mother is always the book’s reader. The article concludes that “one things these books offer that does transcend time is a feeling of parental solidarity – and that, alone, is valuable.” And to the extent that parents see themselves and their families reflected in these books I imagine it is. But what I realized as I read Robin’s post is that you really CAN’T disregard the outdated stuff and focus on the information on child development. Dr. Bates Ames opens her 1979 book The Gesell Institute’s Child from One to Six with this paragraph: “The Gesell philosophy of human behavior maintains, and has always maintained, that behavior is a function of structure. This means that to a large extent we behave as we do because of the way we are built, and because of the stage of development we have reached.” This is the guiding principle of the Your X-Year-Old books. She goes on to say that “Age norms are not set up as standards; they are designed only for orientation and interpretive purposes. It is a gross misinterpretation of our normative work for anyone to assume that we are staying that all children do or should develop in exactly the same way or at the same rate.” Jen Lumanlan 06:38 I quote that section to make it clear what I’m NOT debating. I’m not trying to argue that Dr. Bates Ames and her colleagues ARE saying that all children develop all at the same rate. But what I AM arguing is firstly, that children’s development is shaped much more by their environment than Dr. Bates Ames acknowledges. I’m not going to get into the nature-nurture debate here because I don’t think it’s helpful; I agree with them that we exist within the boundaries of what we’re physically and mentally capable of, but we are still impacted by our environment in ways they don’t seem to recognize that we’ll talk more about in a few minutes. Jen Lumanlan 07:12 And secondly, I believe that what we know, or think we know is also highly shaped by our environment. That means that the way Dr. Bates Ames and also Dr. Gesell, who she worked with a lot, ask their research questions and set up their studies is NOT value-neutral, as they seem to think it is; it is very much shaped by our culture, which means their ideas about what they think children can do is also shaped by our culture. Jen Lumanlan 07:38 So, to understand this better, I did what I do, and I got 20 books out of the University of California Library written by Dr. Bates Ames and her colleagues, because if there’s one thing that library does well it’s books published in the 1930s. I wanted to look more into the research that is behind the books in the Your X Year Old Child series so I could see what are the ideas about children’s development and about society that underpins them. Jen Lumanlan 08:01 So in this episode we’re going to start by learning a bit about the two main players in this field. Dr. Louise Bates Ames, and Dr. Arnold Gesell. We’ll look at the ways they studied babies and young children, and how the children they chose to study and the methods they used to study them affected their views on how children develop. We’ll do this somewhat chronologically, starting with Dr. Gesell’s work in the 1920s, their work together in the 1930s-1940s, and then Dr. Bates Ames work with others at the Gesell Institute through the 1970s. By the end of the episode, we’ll have an understanding of whether the ideas in the Your X-Year-Old books fit with the kinds of relationships we want to have with children, and thus whether we should continue to rely on them. Jen Lumanlan 08:42 Alright, let’s start by finding out about the two main actors in the drama that’s going to unfold in this episode. Louise Bates was born in 1908 in Portland, Maine. Her father was a lawyer and judge, and her mother a schoolteacher. She attended public school in Portland, and then Wheaton College in Massachusetts. Apparently, she disliked the elitist atmosphere of the all-female school and transferred to the University of Maine to receive her B.A. in psychology. She decided to pursue a career in psychology because it would allow more flexibility for family life, and the same year she graduated she married fellow student Smith Ames, although they would divorce in 1937. She received her M.A. from the University of Maine in 1933. She earned her Ph.D. in experimental psychology from Yale University in 1936, and her dissertation was on the sequence of creeping and crawling behavior in human infants. While working on her Ph.D., Bates joined the Yale Clinic of Child Development and worked there from 1933 until it was closed in 1948, acting as the clinic’s secretary and personal research assistant to the director, Dr. Arnold Gesell. They published a lot of books and papers together, and it was these books – as well as books that Gesell wrote alone – that I reviewed to understand the basis for the Your X-Year Old books. In a book published in 1972, Dr. Ames says that in 1950, she and others founded the Gesell Institute of Child Development Inc. That “Inc” implies that the institute is actually a company, although it is now known as Gesell at Yale. The Your X-Year-Old books leave off the “inc,” and the current website gives information on Dr. Gesell’s original research, but nothing about the early days of the institute. Jen Lumanlan 10:23 We also need to know more about Arnold Gesell, since Dr. Bates Ames was intimately involved in his work and carried forward his legacy after he died. Gesell was born in Wisconsin in 1880 and received his doctorate at Clark University in Massachusetts in 1906. In 1911 he went to New Haven, Connecticut to head the Yale Psycho-Clinic, which was later called the Clinic of Child Development. He knew he would need medical training to understand child development so he obtained an M.D. from Yale in 1915. He initially studied abnormalities in childhood and then realized that he couldn’t really do that until he better understood “normal” infant growth and development. His first book appeared in 1912, but he really hit his stride between 1930 and 1960, when a multitude of books described the method he’d developed of using the new technology of video to observe young children’s behavior, many of which he co-authored with Dr. Bates Ames. Unfortunately for me, at least, these books are extraordinarily repetitive, describing the set-up of the experiments and their results over and over again. Jen Lumanlan 11:28 The first thing I want to look at in the research is how the children were selected to participate. Gesell